Pakistan has been failing for a long time. There have been periods of economic growth, backed up by foreign patrons – mostly the United States and increasingly China — but for the most part, Pakistan’s economy and internal security continue to slide. Successive military and civilian leaders have sidestepped inherited problems or made them worse. Predictions of failure, however, have been wrong, or at least premature. The Pakistani state has demonstrated great resiliency. There have been many opportunities for course corrections that haven’t been taken. Another lies ahead.
Here is a short sampler of predictions and characterizations of state failure in Pakistan:
“An impossible dream that failed.” — James Michener, “A Lament for Pakistan,” New York Times, (1972)
Pakistan “resolutely fails to fail.” — John Keay, Midnight’s Descendants (2014)
“Pakistan is not coming apart at the seams. It is not a failing state. In playing out our acquired habits of thought and action, we are succeeding only too well. No, this is not a failing state, just an irrational state, one that just refuses to abide by the laws of normality.” Columnist Ayaz Amir in The News, December 21, 2012
“Each time Pakistan has been declared ‘failed state’ it has come back from the grave – albeit with a weakened economy, a more fragmented political order, less security in relation to its powerful neighbor, and disturbing demographic and educational trends.” — Stephen Philip Cohen, The Idea of Pakistan, 2005.
“Barring a cataclysmic event or a conjunction of major crises such as a military defeat, a serious economic crisis, and extended political turmoil, the failure of Pakistan as a state can be ruled out. However, failure can still take place slowly or in parts. Pakistan may be unable to maintain minimal standards of ‘stateness.’” – Cohen, The Idea of Pakistan, 2005
“Pakistan is more fragmented than ever before, and the economy is unable to develop enough resources internally to sustain the state system. If these trends continue, Pakistan may lose efficacy and become a nonperforming state in most sectors of society.” Hasan Askari Rizvi in Cohen, The Future of Pakistan (2011)
“In a climate of continuing domestic turmoil, the central government’s control probably will be reduced to the Punjabi heartland and the economic hub of Karachi.” – National Intelligence Council, Global Trends 2015 (2000).
Pakistan is likely to “muddle through or slightly worse. Absent a major unexpected shock, it is not destined to become a ‘failed state.’” – Jonathan Paris, Prospects for Pakistan (2010)
The dynamics of decline have accelerated since President and Army Chief Pervez Musharraf stepped aside. Prime Minister Asif Ali Zardari was elected in 2008 with room to maneuver on domestic issues, but he succeeded mostly by staying in office. Nawaz Sharif became Prime Minister for the third time in 2013. He was also elected by a healthy margin, but has started out badly. Civil-military relations are once again frayed. Internal security threats grow as Musharraf is on trial for treason, even as Nawaz’s government seeks to accommodate violent groups with treasonable agendas.
Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. The Army and intelligence services still do not appear to be on the same page with the government in seeking more normal ties with India. Every firing incident along the Line of Control dividing Kashmir reminds Nawaz that he must reckon with his military when trying to improve ties with India. Pakistan’s diplomatic corps is not known for risk-taking. Distinguished veterans of diplomatic skirmishes with India offer cautionary notes in the press about allowing trade to proceed if other contentious issues languish.
India and Pakistan have agreed to a “composite dialogue” where they discuss trade, strategic, water and humanitarian issues. Many agreements have been drafted but have been gathering dust, including nuclear risk-reduction agreements and military confidence-building measures that could demonstrate responsible nuclear stewardship. None have been concluded since the brazen 2008 siege of Mumbai luxury hotels, a train station, and a Jewish center by militants who took direction from their Pakistani handlers.
The most important agreements, by far, would permit a significant increase in trade across the Punjab and Kashmir, along with seaborne commerce between Karachi and Mumbai. Trade is the lifeline Pakistan needs for economic growth to outpace population growth. For Pakistan to demand progress on multiple fronts before trade deals can be settled would constitute yet another self-inflicted wound.
The time has long since passed when Pakistan has been able to force terms of engagement with India. The campaign by Pakistan’s intelligence services to destabilize the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir was supposed to provide such leverage while pinning down and punishing Indian troops. In reality, India took the punishment while Pakistan lost international standing and suffered blow-back. Pakistan’s standing diminished further after the 2001 attack on the Indian Parliament and the 2008 attacks on Mumbai. Pakistan effectively lost these engagements without New Delhi having to fire a shot in retaliation.
A powerful, new Indian government may be ready to propose significant new trade initiatives with Pakistan which may, in turn, prompt spoilers to carry out mass-casualty attacks against more iconic Indian targets. A decision by New Delhi to shelve a major trade initiative in the event of another big explosion that can be traced back to Pakistan would impose a heavy mortgage on Pakistan’s future. The new Indian government might think that this severe punishment is insufficient. Political parties that are in the wilderness for eight or ten years tend to overreach once they regain power. We do not yet know the ways that Narendra Modi’s government will overreach. He might choose to focus hard on economic growth while being dismissive of Pakistan. Or he might not pull his punches after another embarrassing attack.
The arrival of a highly motivated Indian government offers a new chance to improve bilateral relations and avoid another nuclear-tinged crisis on the subcontinent. While the pivot for doing so would be trade, practical results can be accomplished on nuclear risk reduction, easing cross-border travel restrictions, helping Pakistan with its power shortages, and in many other ways – if Pakistan works hard to prevent another spectacular act of terrorism. If Pakistani authorities work hard and fail, they might be granted a free pass. If they stay the course, Pakistan’s decline will accelerate.
As India breaks free from family-based leadership and stale, backward-looking policies, Pakistan has yet to demonstrate that it can dispense with bad military habits, diplomatic clichés, and an absentee ownership-oriented political class. In my view, Pakistan is not a failed state. But it is a failing state – a state whose leaders consistently fail to meet public desires for competent governance. Many other countries fit this mold, but Pakistan is an especially hard case.
Pakistan survives by the forbearance or resignation of its citizens, while muddling through predictions of failure. Changing this narrative would require civilian and military leaders that are on the same page to improve internal security, relations with India, and prospects for economic growth.